Classics Corner: “Citizen Kane”

28 10 2010

Rosebud.

It’s the secret of “Citizen Kane,” the movie considered by many film scholars and critics as the greatest ever made.  So pardon me for being a little shocked when I got to the conclusion of Orson Welles’ masterpiece and realized I knew the ending thanks to watching AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Quotes” special on CBS.

The search for the meaning of “Rosebud,” however, was still quite enthralling.  Welles’ take on newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, here under the guise of Charles Foster Kane, is a power chronicle of greed and power are still just as resonant today as they were in 1941.  So relevant, in fact, that many people pointed out the thematic similarities between it and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”  Curious to see the connection to the chronicle of Facebook I was so highly anticipating, I watched them both on the same day to really have a comparison.

I debated it on the LAMBcast, but I don’t see all that much similar between the two other than the main characters.  Both Kane and Mark Zuckerberg start with humble origins, setting out to revolutionize the way people see the world.  There is success right from the get-go, and there is acclaim.  So both set their sights higher and see no ceiling on their ambitions.  This causes them alienation from friends and loved ones, yet for them this a small price to pay for the success they are having with their ideas.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Orson Welles completes the story of Charles Foster Kane, a luxury that allegories can provide.  Since Aaron Sorkin made no effort to hide the fact that “The Social Network” was the story of Mark Zuckerberg, however fictionalized, he would lose credibility if he tried to extend beyond what is already known of Facebook’s short history.  He chose to document the site’s origins and the effect that meteoric success had on its founder.

The future of Facebook as is difficult to forecast as the rest of Zuckerberg’s life.  Who knows what kind of life the world’s youngest billionaire will lead?  At 26, he still has a whole life to live, one that would be tough for anyone, let alone Aaron Sorkin, to predict.  When “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941, William Randolph Hearst was 78, and his life work was nearly complete.  While he was still influential (probably more so than Zuckerberg has been in his vehement disapproval of his cinematic treatment), there was a reasonable amount of closure Welles could provide.  Aaron Sorkin left “The Social Network” fairly open-ended, and I found a certain amount of joy in being able to interpret the movie as I wanted.  How I chose to interpret it, however, was very similar to the message that “Citizen Kane” communicated.

It’s a great sign of a movie’s longevity when it can be compared to something as modern as Facebook seven decades after its release, but “Citizen Kane” did more for movies than offer up thematic depth.  The movie was a watershed event in the development of the craft of cinema for decades to come.  It’s easy to look at the movie and notice nothing, but I had heard that the movie was a true revolution, so I looked deeper.  Since I can count the number of movies I have seen from before 1941 on one hand, I went to my good friend the Internet to find out the changes.  According to Tim Dirks, we take a whole lot of Orson Welles’ techniques for granted now.  Notable first in “Citizen Kane” include:

  • Subjective camera work
  • Unconventional lighting
  • Shadows and strange camera-angles
  • Deep-focus shots
  • Few revealing facial close-ups
  • Elaborate camera movements
  • Overlapping dialogue
  • Flashbacks
  • Cast of characters who ages throughout the film
  • Long shots and sequences, lengthy takes

Can you imagine movies without any of these of these things?  What would “The Social Network” be without the overlapping dialogue?  Could Mark Zuckerberg really be like a StairMill to Erica if they paused nicely to hear each other?  Orson Welles did cinema a huge favor with this movie.  While other people have taken these techniques to towering heights, “Citizen Kane” is a necessary watch for anyone who claims to love movies because it is the origin of so much cinematic development.

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2 responses

1 11 2010
Mad Hatter

It must also be remembered that Welles created this film completely outside of the Hollywood system. As amazing as films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK are, they are much easier to achieve when you have a powerhouse like Sony backing your every decision.

Welles on the other hand was working completely autonomously and furthermore, had to continually thwart Hearst’s attempts to bury the final product.

(PS – At the risk of sounding like a blogosphere broken record, listen to the commentary track on the dvd that Roger Ebert recorded – wickedly insightful!

2 11 2010
Dan

After studying the film to death during college and university I was sick to death of seeing Citizen Kane. Thankfully, after a long break from it, I was able to watch it and enjoy it for what it is – a true masterpiece and one of the best films ever made.

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